Diane Rehm Finds New Life In The Profound Challenge Of Being Alone For decades, she's hosted her own talk show — but one of her toughest struggles came with the pain of her husband's death. She tells NPR's Scott Simon how it inspired her fight for assisted suicide.

Diane Rehm Finds New Life In The Profound Challenge Of Being Alone

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Diane Rehm joins us live in our studios for the first live author interview we've ever done

Diane Rehm knows how to work a clock.

DIANE REHM: (Laughter).

SIMON: She has written a short and powerful new memoir about love and marriage, life and death, being alone and finding new life after the long, slow passing of John Rehm, her husband of 54 years. Her book is also an eloquent and controversial call to change laws to permit those who are terminally ill to choose when to end their lives. Her new book is "On My Own." And Diane Rehm, a winner of the National Humanities Medal joins us.

Thank you so much.

REHM: Scott, it is my great honor to be here.

SIMON: And as the host of "The Diane Rehm Show" might put it, you can join our conversation.

REHM: (Laughter).

SIMON: You can tweet questions to me, @nprscottsimon on Twitter.

Tell us about John Rehm.

REHM: John Rehm was such a courageous man, both in life and in death. He always stopped on the street to help people, even as I walked on. One day, he saw a man with a card table on the street on Connecticut Avenue passing out a leaflet about his own situation. He had escaped from the Ceausescu government in Romania. His wife and son remained in that country, not allowed to leave. After a great deal of negotiation with the State Department, John Rehm himself went to Romania.

SIMON: I read that. I found that extraordinary. Most people would write a letter, maybe post a tweet. John Rehm went to Romania.

REHM: He went to Romania and met her in a park, a public park. He convinced her that the U.S. would help her. She would get out of Romania with her son. And thanks to John Rehm taking up her cause and the State Department, she is now in this country with her son.

SIMON: But I have to ask, because this is in the book, in many ways the hardest part for me was to read when he apologized to you for being sharp in your marriage. I think he even used the term abusive.

REHM: You know, sharp is not quite the term he used. He said Diane, I have something I want to say to you. I deliberately emotionally abused you. And Scott, I was stunned, not only by his words, but by the confession. I mean, I had said to him - what in the world is wrong with you through all these silences, through all these withdrawals? He finally said to me - when I asked him why, he said I don't know. Perhaps I should never have married. Perhaps I should have lived my life alone with books, with music, with poetry. But then, he said, I would have missed out on my life with you and David and Jennie (ph).

SIMON: God bless. At the heart of this book is, of course, the tension between - which you very bluntly talk about feelings of guilt and regret that he was in a convalescence center, care center, whatever term of art would be - anyway, rather than at home - and then your feeling that he had very explicitly said he wanted to die, wanted to end his life. And you couldn't help him, and he, very bravely again, had to do it on his own.

REHM: And the way he did it was after a conference with our son, our daughter, who is herself a doctor and his physician and me in the room. He said I want to die. I am ready to die. My daughter, a doctor in Boston, said Dad, we can keep you comfortable. And he banged his fist on his leg and said I don't want comfort. I am ready to die. Scott, he and I had talked about this years and years before he even got sick. Parkinson's had taken away everything he could do for himself. I mean everything. And therefore, I respected his decision. I said - sweetheart, are you sure? He said I am very sure. It took him 10 days to die. Ten days, had no water, no food, no medication, and I stood by.

SIMON: And then ironically couldn't be there in the last 20 minutes, right?

REHM: You know, I had slept on two chairs that last night in his room with my little dog Maxie (ph) on my stomach. At about 2 a.m., I got up with my iPad, started writing. That was the beginning. And then at 7:30 when his caregiver arrived, I said I'll go home, feed Maxie, walk him and then I'll be back. The doctor called and said he's likely to die within 24 hours. I said I'll be there quickly then his caregiver called and said come quickly, Diane. I think Mr. John has passed. I got there 20 minutes too late.

SIMON: I think - you know, I think my wife and I told you at the time. None of my business. I think he waited until you were gone. I think he wanted - I don't know. I think he felt he had to do that on his own.

REHM: You know, the nurses said to me. They said so often this happens, that the person who is dying knows that when the time comes that the loved one is no longer there. That's when he or she goes.

SIMON: Do you have - I have to ask you a nuts-and-bolts question. Do you have any concern, because you have been outspoken that this should be a right and we should change laws, do you have any concern, as the volume of demands on our health care system increases that hospitals, if those laws are changed to permit people to choose when to end their lives with assistance, that hospitals and insurance companies will be too quick to decide that somebody's just not worth saving for a few more days or weeks?

REHM: Scott, I think it's up to each state to put into place laws, regulations that would prevent any such horror from occurring. What I am hoping for, by writing this book, is that people will talk with their families, people will talk with each other about what it is they want, how their lives should be lived and end.

I think people don't speak sufficiently about death and dying. We are too afraid. But birth and death are natural events, and we all need to talk about them and acknowledge that there will come that time.

SIMON: Diane Rehm - her new book, "On My Own." Thanks so much for being with us.

REHM: Thank you, Scott.

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